After providing my descriptions of both traditional and radical house churches in parts 1 and 2, I concluded part 2 with posing a few questions. I will use this post to start addressing these questions and provide some opinions based on some personal research and experiences I’ve have emersed in both church settings.
First things first, what the heck happened to the interactive church service style that was present in the first century? And why hasn’t this style returned in mainstream Christianity?
A BEAUTIFUL PICTURE SHORT-LIVED
In the first century the Apostle Paul took Jesus’s message of salvation and spread it into the European gentile world. As Paul both preached God’s love, and boldly demonstrated it through signs and wonders (Romans 15:18-19), individuals received Jesus as Lord and were transferred out of Satan’s kingdom of darkness into God’s kingdom of light. As a result these individuals were added into God’s macro-community—the Church: Jesus’s global body including all believers spread out over all the earth. They were now a family of co-equal brothers and sisters in faith, God’s very own children, His divine household, connected together through the omnipresence of the Holy Spirit and mutual faith in Jesus.
However, the end-all to Paul’s message of faith was not solely realized in the making of new converts, nor in the mere increase of numbers into God’s global family. Paul purposefully established and kick-started micro-communities—churches: interactive local fellowships of faith. These churches were made up of believers who were living in close proximity to one another, in a town, city or region, for the purpose of sharing and experiencing God’s life together at a local level. They were geographically linked together sharing mutual edification, direction, and understanding from the Lord, ministering and worshiping the Lord corporately, as well as meeting each others physical needs and facilitating spiritual growth. The micro-church experience was both causal, as in sharing an everyday life in faith together, as well as intentional, as in making concerted efforts to come together to seek God’s direction and love on Him. It was an all-in, day-to-day, full lifestyle of faith.
In the reading of New Testament scripture we can catch a glimpse of what God envisioned for local communities of faith: folks living in spiritual and communal harmony together, worshiping God together, taking care of one another, and laying down each others life for one another just as Jesus laid down His life for us. It’s true—the local church is a beautiful picture in its conceptualization!
However, let’s not paint the actualization of these first century communities too rosy. As the letters to the Galatians and Corinthians point out, as well as half of the seven churches called out in Revelations chapters 2-3, the early church communities functioned FAR from perfect. Problems were prevalent and spiritual life ran far from smooth. But despite the dystopias, the early church planters continued on and were compelled by God’s great love to persuade others to be reconciled to Him and share in His community life.
But in only a few centuries later the radical house church disappeared. The defining characteristics of radical house church (some of which I pointed out in part 2) were relatively short-lived. Why? Because EARTHLY MODELS OF LEADERSHIP AND HIERARCHICAL STRUCTURE INFILTRATED THE CHURCH. This changed the format and function of the church drastically. Most importantly, and in turn what caused the disappearance of the first century church, was that these earthly traditions were completely out of step with Jesus’s teachings, life example, and how the first century church operated.
So now, let us explore Jesus’s form of leadership, and its operations in the early church, in the following four sections.
JESUS’S FORM OF LEADERSHIP: NON-COERCIVE
First, Jesus’s form of leadership was non-coercive. He never forced His lordship. Neither did he overpower anyone to get His goals accomplished. Unlike the power and control of the most secular organizations (as for example the Roman State which forced its customs and laws, often barbarically, on all who it conquered) Jesus’s kingdom was always advanced by means of gracious invitation and in turn entered into through voluntary submission in a free response to His loving selfless nature. His sovereignty as the one true God, Lord and creator of the universe, was manifest not by usurping authority and/or forcefully reigning over people but by becoming the weakest among mankind, even to the point of offering Himself on the cross.
“Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:6-8, NRSB
Via unselfish love, and self emptying, Jesus modeled His version of leadership. In Jesus’s kingdom, the “greatest” were those who displayed the least amount of forceful authoritative power over people. In the Kingdom of God leadership was not coercive but persuasive in the demonstration of selfless compelling love. How opposite is this from the way leadership functions in our secular organizations?
Jesus’s style of leadership continued after His death and was modeled in the early church. An example of such in I Peter 5:1-3:
“The Elders which are among you, I beseech which am also an Elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed, Feed the flock of God, which dependeth upon you, caring for it not by constraint, but willingly: not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind: Not as though ye were Lords over God’s heritage, but that ye may be examples to the flock.” 1599 Geneva Bible
Notice that there is a specific charge to the first century elders to specifically not “lord over” their fellow believers. Why did the author include this specification in the text? I’d argue that it’s because “lording over” is the type of leadership that humans default and/or resort to. Especially when humans want to ensure results that favor their personal benefit.
“Lording over” leadership is what we as humans do. It has a structure that is easy to implement. It is simple to replicate and enforce. In this system weaker members are dominated by the stronger members. And by virtue of threat or fear, people “fall into line”. Why should I get that report done? Because my boss will have my ass if I don’t! Why do I do what I am told? Because if I don’t I will be laid a heavy hand from above. Lording over works if you want to ensure your desires are carried out. It can make the ends appear to justify the means because it gets things done.
But to avoid this form of leadership the author of I Peter specifically encourages the elders to NOT “lord over”. Why? Because leadership in Jesus’s kingdom isn’t manifested through an authoritative, top-down, “do as I say or else” rule. In His kingdom, power exudes in weakness, persuasion, and selflessness. Lording over might force people to get in line and ultimately accomplish your will, but it’s not God’s method. God’s method isn’t based on coercion. It’s based on the free voluntary will of one’s heart.
JESUS’S FORM OF LEADERSHIP: HIERARCHICAL ABANDONMENT
Secondly, Jesus leveled out spiritual hierarchy. What we most commonly see on the earth, and in our governmental/religious institutions is a hierarchical, one to the masses, elite to the inferior, rank and file, unilateral dissemination structure of leadership. Earthly leadership functions like this: you can’t access the top commander directly. You have no personal relationship with him. The only access you have is through a tiered system of subordinates and intermediaries. Power is delegated and wielded over people. Orders are given from a position of unchallengeable strength and obeyed due to fear of retribution. Challenges or questions to authority are considered subversive.
Jesus spoke directly to this type worldly rank and file of leadership in Matthew 20:25-28 and rebuked it:
“You know that foreign rulers like to order their people around. And their great leaders have full power over everyone they rule. But don’t act like them. If you want to be great, you must be the servant of all the others. And if you want to be first, you must be the slave of the rest. The Son of Man did not come to be a slave master, but a slave who will give his life to rescue many people. – CEV
Culminating in His finished work on the cross, Jesus’s life example and instructions completely blasted the earthly hierarchical system out of the water. This impacted our spiritual relationship both on an individual level with God, and also on a group level among each other as believers.
INDIVIDUAL: Jesus, who is King and holds the highest spiritual office, invited us all to come to Him directly apart from hierarchy:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30, NIV
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” JOHN 6:37 ESV
We don’t come to know God by going through a priest, or a pastor, or someone else in a line of hierarchical rank. Those folks might help point the way, functioning like a road sign, but they don’t possess the destination in themselves. They have no power to get the job done. We come to know God by calling on Him from our hearts and going directly to Him. And relationship with God doesn’t end there, it gets even more personal. He further equipped each individual person by coming to live in them through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit.
What does this new direct access to Jesus via the Holy Spirit mean?
Special classes of leaders are not needed to provide, dispense or preside over an individuals relationship with the Lord. Relationship with the Lord now resides in us believers ourselves through the personal indwelling of His Spirit. And by His Spirit, and through Jesus’s work on the cross, God gave each individual direct access to Himself thus shattering any hierarchical sense to approaching God. We can talk with God directly, hear His voice, learn from Him, and have intimacy with Him as a child of God just as we would have intimacy with a friend or spouse. We have full access to the chief commander and we can approach Him with boldness and confidence. The chain of relationship is simple, Jesus → You. No tiers. No human hierarchy needed for heavenly access.
GROUP: Not only did Jesus do away with any hierarchical relationship with God and ourselves but he leveled any sense of hierarchy existing between our relationships with each brother and sister in the Lord. Listen to what Jesus says about leaders in the passage below. I’ve offer two translations:
“But you: do not let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ that is, ‘Teacher.’ For you are all brothers, and you have only one teacher, the Anointed One. Indeed, do not call anyone on earth “Father,” for you have only one father, and He is in heaven. Neither let anyone call you “leader,” for you have one leader—the Anointed One. If you are recognized at all, let it be for your service. Delight in the one who calls you servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:8-12, The VOICE
“Don’t ever let anyone call you that. For only God is your Rabbi and all of you are on the same level, as brothers. And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven should be addressed like that. And don’t be called ‘Master,’ for only one is your master, even the Messiah”. “The more lowly your service to others, the greater you are. To be the greatest, be a servant. But those who think themselves great shall be disappointed and humbled; and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.” – Matthew 23:8-12, The Living Bible
What Jesus says in this passage about leadership among believers is so contrary to the way traditional church leadership is carried out that it nearly knocks me on the floor. This passage is so radical you almost need to look this passage up on your own to make sure I’m not making it up.
Jesus says that we are all on the same level. He is to be our only teacher, pastor, and priest. We are not even supposed to call anyone by those titles, let alone create official positions and offices to be filled by those titles. Brothers and sisters who are stronger in faith are not be be called leaders or masters. They are not to be looked upon as ones who hold a position in a hierarchy. Just as there is no hierarchy with the individual accessing God there is also no hierarchy between fellow Christians. None.
JESUS’S FORM OF LEADERSHIP: ELDERS AS LEADERS, BUT NOT IN THE TRADITIONAL SENSE
But someone might say, “Just wait a minute, some form of leadership still existed in the church, right? Weren’t there apostles, pastors, teachers, and elders identified in the New Testament? How do we square this with Jesus’s words about no leaders and no teachers?” I believe that much can be understood by examining the term elder.
Elders without positions: When we think of leaders in the church we think of designated people who control, preside over, and direct the affairs of the church. But as we explored leadership in part two of this blog series, leadership in the New Testament church is reserved to Jesus only. Everyone listens and hears from God as they submit themselves to Him and His loving nature. At the same time those with wisdom, maturity, and spiritual leadership giftings were essential to building and maintaining New Testament communities. And as believers in the faith spread the message of Jesus they in turn recognized those members within these local communities who were knowledgeable, experienced, and respected who could help bring others into greater maturity in the faith.
These people were called elders – and as the word presbuteros that we translate as elders simply means: older people. This didn’t mean that elders were only people of old age. They were older brothers and sisters in the Lord. Elders would have been those brothers and sisters who have been walking with the Lord longer, have been discipled in the faith, and walked an exemplary life befitting Jesus’s calling.
Elders were not a position to be filled, like a job application for a vacant office in a company. They were just members of the community that assisted the younger ones. Elders had a firm grasp on the gospel, modeled Christian character, were able to teach and instruct, train others, and helped preserve and keep watch over the the doctrines and way of life that were given to them from their predecessors. Rather than using terms like master, and leader, or boss, presbuteros was used to describe their non-hierarchical place among the rest of the church. Presbuteros signifies a relational position, as older brothers and sisters, not a hierarchical or clerical position as a leader set over the church to direct and control. And again, as I mentioned in part two, those with special spiritual endowments, such as apostles, pastors, prophets, etc., were not appointed so that the rest of the church body would be forever in servitude to their leadership, but so that they would help equip the rest of the body to be able to carry out the works and ministries that God had personally called them in to; to mature them in unity with the rest of the body so that we become more like Jesus.
Elders without coercive authority: Elders played a significant role in the early church. But how did they employ their elder-“ship”? How was their recognition of being an older member played out in the affairs of the church? What type of authority over the rest of the church did they demonstrate? Just as we described with Jesus’s example, New Testament elders were also non-coercive.
We don’t often see early church elders dole out commands referencing a position of over-arching authority to get their desires accomplished. We don’t see threats of expulsion, retribution, or top-down consequences as traditional leadership does (i.e., think of your day job and your boss – you either do the work or you are fired). In fact there are only a handful of times in the New Testament were we find elders using the words like “command” to direct an action – i.e. 2 Thessalonians 3:6, I Corinthians 7:1-10 (NRSV).
What is found in the New testament instead is an overwhelming persuasive approach with words used such as: appeal, exhort, beg, urge, warn, beseech, and admonish – Romans 12:1, Philemon 1:8, Hebrews 3:13, Titus 2:15, Philippians 4:2, Romans 16:17, I Thessalonians 4:1, Ephesians 4:1, Galatians 5:19-21 (NRSV).
So what we actually see in the in the New Testament is a vast de-emphasis on a commanding or hierarchical use of authority and an overwhelming emphasis on leading via persuasion. How opposite is this from the way most secular organizations function?
Additionally, as we read from Jesus’s words in Matthew 20, Godly leaders weren’t those who barked orders unilaterally, but instead were slaves and servants of those they watched over. Jesus’s servant-based instruction is echoed in the epistles in that we are to consider others better and more valued than ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4, I Corinthians 12:21-24). People accepted commands or instruction from New Testament elders not because of an official office they held, or because they were given a title, but because their personal character, selfless ambition, being filled with the Spirit, and genuine love for the church body proved their validity as an elder.
Even when discipline was applied it was intended to be handled though a grassroots process ultimately concluding via a consensus of the church when it came together as a body in assembly. (Matthew 18:15-20., I Corinthians 5:1-5). It wasn’t a top/down unilateral decision.
Contrary to how we see eldership working in the traditional church today, originally elders were among the body, not reigning over the body. They didn’t hold an official position that manifested in an authoritative role. They were fellow members of the church to whom all were equally submitted to God’s authority alone. Consider the comparison I drew up in the two illustrations below:
New Testament Leadership Model
Elders were brothers and sisters in the Lord who were recognized to be living the life of Christ, were able to disciple others, and were tasked with watching out for traps and for matters that would stray believers from the center of the faith. Eldership was non-coercive. Elders treated each co-member in higher regard than themselves. And as a result leadership in the house church functioned opposite to what we usually think of when we think of leadership in the traditional sense.
JESUS’S FORM OF LEADERSHIP: DE-CENTRALIZED LEADERSHIP ROLES
Lastly, as each person came to know God directly and more fully and was discipled by their elder peers, they in turn were encouraged to share the fruit of that relationship amongst the community. As we also covered in part 2, everyone was instructed to love one to another, to serve one to another, minister and teach one to another, and share in the Lord one to another as each one has received the gift:
“As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” I Peter 4:11 NKJV
So not only do we see that the chain of relationship was simple in the New Testament church, Jesus → You, the chain of command and hierarchical structure of the church at a corporate level was also simple, Jesus → You → One-to-Another.
Elders were present, but receiving, ministering, and sharing in the Lord was not centralized to them only. Jesus’s life could be expressed through all members of the church equally.
NEW TESTAMENT LEADERSHIP: AN INTERCONNECTED WEB
The decentralization and lack of hierarchical leadership formed what could be expressed as a web style of hierarchy. With God at it’s head and all others equally co-submitting, co-instructing, and co-leading one another each in the gifts that each of them had been given. Everyone is directly accountable to God and equally accountable to each other without the presence of an tiered hierarchical system.
SO WHAT HAPPENED TO THE FIRST CENTURY CHURCH?
So finally we can address the question that we started with in this particular blog post. Why did house church community change? My answer is quite simple. While the communities of the early Christians set out to function under Jesus’s model of leadership it unfortunately didn’t take long for the governmental, religious, and social traditions of the surrounding Roman world to infiltrate and take root in the church, The earthly hierarchical, organizational, coercive, and rank and file style of leadership took over and ultimately shaped the church into the way we see it in its form and structure today.
THE REPERCUSSIONS OF TRADING ONE SYSTEM FOR ANOTHER
As I mentioned in part 1, Barna/Viola’s book, “Pagan Christianity“, does an excellent job of walking one through the many Western secular organizational practices that church slowly adopted. These changes were greatly accelerated in the 4th century with the “conversion” of the Roman Emperor Constantine. With his absolute power the Christian faith became officially recognized, adopted, and organized as the state religion of the Roman Empire. And the states tradition of leadership and hierarchy became institutionalized in the church. Yes, the church gained its freedom from persecution, but it lost the model of hierarchy and leadership that that Jesus and the apostles originally laid down. And as a result the church could no longer function in the ways it was intended to.
The repercussions were vast:
-When in times past believers used to meet unofficially house-to-house, in courtyards, and shared Jesus with each other publicly (Acts 2:46), their dynamic and fluid meetings were reduced to being rigidly confined to formal “sacred” buildings – holy places, temples, churches, cathedrals.
-Wherein once all of the early believers had an interactive relationship with God directly with Him, one-on-one, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Christian faith became a non-personal ritualistic method of relationship confined to sanctimonious, repetitious rituals and prayers, reverence for sacred buildings and object veneration. And it furthermore locked the Christian faith to a clergy/laity system with the clergy claiming that they alone held the right to mediate and dispense righteousness with God via sacraments.
-Where the church once sought to live a quiet life of faith peacefully amongst its non-believing neighbors it became entangled with the secular government, which then led to the enforcement of Christianity as an official national religion. Where faith was once voluntary, in response to the love of God in Christ, faith was horribly turned into a coercive regime mandate—even to such extremes in forcing some areas of non-believing populations to convert to the faith or either be literally be burnt alive.
-Where once the Christian faith was based on a lifestyle of relationship with God, “church” and experiencing God now became an event, a transaction with God. Church became a transaction that you do in a building once a week. Practicing the intimate presence of God in every part of individual life in Christ, and sharing that with others, was substituted for a transactional acquaintance with God through rituals, ceremony, physical sacraments, that of course was only held valid if it was administered by the hierarchical church institution. Connecting with God one-on-one with Him individually, and sharing Him one-to-one to another was institutionalized and ritualized, and thus relational Christianity was replaced with transactional Christianity.
-Where having “church” could once be defined as simply as “..where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” as the Lord said in Matthew 18:20, church was now taught to only be a valid experience if presented and led by the elite ministers of the formal institution. Contrary to the practices in the New Testament, church became a formal transaction that had to be entered into only by officially recognized mediators—the clergy. Preforming rituals and spiritual acts before and under the clergy became the only means for a valid transaction with God.
-Whereas obtaining a right standing with God (righteousness) was once accomplished through living a life in a direct and continual love relationship with God through faith in Jesus, it was now exchanged for transactional acts of spirituality led by priest and ministers: repetitious prayers, rites, confessions, attendance, and infant baptisms. People embraced a mentality that they needed to “do” something, or make some sort of transaction with God through the priest to be right with Him rather than individually relying on Jesus’s finished work on the cross for their good standing.
-When the church was once a living body, an organism comprised of living human sacrifices to God that functioned interdependent to each other member, it now became a sterile organization where authority, rank, and ritual trumped relationships.
Christianity became centralized to the four walls of the institutional church building, and its hierarchical structure became the only door which one experiences God through. As a result the individual spiritual lives of believers also became compartmentalized within both the church building and institution as well. The web-like style of day-to-day interpersonal dependency that we once saw in the first century church was rooted out., institutional dependency was sown in, and the church lost its primary function—to express the Lord freely one to another.
IT KEEPS GOING, AND GOING, AND GOING….
The centuries continued on in like fashion with each passing year, cementing a tradition that was propped up influenced by the Roman State. However, there are blips in history throughout these centuries where we find some writings that document pockets of believers who sought to return to the day-to-day life practice closer to the early church. The writings are somewhat sparse because the powers at hand always labeled them as heretics, advised their flocks to avoid them, or worse off just plainly wiped them out by the sword or fire. “The Pilgrim Church” by E.C. Broadbent and “The Torch of the Testimony” by John W. Kennedy are good reads on the subject.
Even though the Catholic church reigned supreme there were many dissenters—although many of them were banished or burned alive (people with power don’t give up power easily). The ashes of these non-conformists filled the air with thoughts of revolution and reform to where it eventually reached a breaking point.
Due to various converging reasons, those who sought to reform the church finally gained some traction in the 12th-16th centuries. This snowballed into Martin Luther’s Great Reformation in the 16th century. Finally, but not without much persecution, a Christian movement was finally able to separate itself from the bonds of the Catholic powerhouse. But Luther’s reformation was mostly doctrinal in nature and didn’t change much of the format and traditions of the church leadership and hierarchy. The restoration of an interactive house-church meeting format would still be a distant reality. However, the flood gates to change and independent thought were now open.
The centuries that followed Luther’s reformation spawned many new breeds of Christian church denominations that sought to further reform the faith – Calvinist, Anglicans, along with the (Martin) Lutherans, then Congregationalist, Anabaptists and Mennonites, Baptist, Episcopal, and Methodists. Then EVERYTHING got REALLY splintered in America starting with the Second Great Awakening with the Adventists, Methodists, and Mormonism, and continuing into the the whole Pentecostal movement of the early 1900’s, the Jehovah’s Witnesses shortly after that, and even up to where we now have thousands of churches in the 21st century that say they are “non-denominational” (which are churches that may OR may not have a denominational origin, but choose not to identify, align, or fall into the hierarchical umbrella of any one sect).
One number that is tossed around these days is that the protestant church (non-Catholic) has upwards of 33,000 different official denominations. Incredible!
I like to call this the mass splinterization of Christianity (I know splinterization is technically not a word but it seems to fit). And to complicate these 33,000 denominations further, all of them believe (or at least did in their original formations) that they have the one true message of Jesus and are the only organization walking in the fullness of the truth the God. Some even go so far as to say that if you are not a member of their particular organization specifically then you have no assurance of an eternal relationship in God’s future Kingdom. Heck, even within the strict cult-like church denomination that I grew up in (the WorldWide Church of God) told us the exact same thing—only we had the truth and everyone else is more or less damned. But then when our leader died in 1986, that church of 100,000+ worldwide members splintered into dozens of other groups, and each one of those then claimed that only THEY held the truth! Oh God help me, my head is spinning with all the splintering!
Within the brief church history that I just laid from the 1500’s to now, we see that the non-hierarchical and relational dynamics of the early church were relatively short lived and contained to mostly the first century. A reformation of the format of church never took place.
In summary, here’s what I believe happened to the radical house church:
- With in a few centuries after the marco-church was formed, perhaps even starting a few decades after the original twelve apostles died (i.e., see the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch in the very early 2nd century and his concern with the presence of the bishop), it was eventually overrun by a earthly secular system of leadership and hierarchy.
- That system was then solidified as an unchallengeable institution under the name of the Roman Catholic Church. It completely dominated it’s followers and severely persecuted its mere dissenters thus preventing any resurgence of the first century style church to successfully resurface into the mainstream.
- A gradual reformation eventually led to Martin Luther’s great reformation in the 1500’s which gave root to the explosion of our splintered protestant churches that now reside today.
- However, within all of these new denominations, the reformations that occurred were mostly limited to the doctrinal or experiential realm. Each reformation retained the same traditional church meeting and earthly hierarchical structure that I descried in part 1 of this series (although some rare remnants resurfaced as in the meeting dynamics of the Quakers, and with the early Azusa Street revival led by William Seymore).
ANOTHER REFORMATION IN PROGRESS
Although Christianity has seen many changes take place in the church since Martin Luther’s reformation in the 1500’s, we still haven’t seen much mainstream reformation in regard to the hierarchical and unilateral structure of the church itself. We within in the radical house church movement believe we are bringing this reformation, The macro-church as a whole needs a structural reformation. And we proponents of radical house church hope to reintegrate a model of lifestyle and worship that more accurately reflects the dynamics of the early church that will organically spread to the rest of our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
The desire to recover our early church structural roots isn’t a new phenomenon. Throughout the centuries there have been documented groups of people who have striven to recover elements of the early church both in respect to providing more open forms of worship meetings as well as minimizing the clergy/laity distinction. Martin Luther himself even originally envisioned a type of “3rd service” that would accompany the Mass where believers would assemble in small numbers in homes to read, pray, baptize, take up offerings for the poor, address disciplinary measures, and so on. John Wesley had set up many small groups called “societies” of people who essential met in their homes to share their faith and commit their lives to each other. Jean de Labadie and his student Philipp Jakob Spener reincorporated some early church elements in their movements as well. John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren sought to abandon the clergy and referred to each other only as brethren. And since I referenced them a short while ago, I might as well speak on the Quakers:
The Quakers were an organization that emerged in the 1650’s that originally was founded on a centrality of faith in Jesus. Although in recent years many contemporary branches of Quakerism have been transformed into more of a Unitarian organization in which peoples of all faiths traditions are held equally valid together.
The traditional Quakers are unique in that they usually have a un-programmed segment during their meetings, perhaps lasting up to an hour, where everyone in the room remains silent. Anyone present is allowed and encouraged to speak during this time but only when they feel they are specifically being inspired and lead by the Great Spirit do to do. If you ever plan to go to a traditional Quaker meeting I’d recommend you use the bathroom first, don’t drink a lot of coffee or liquids before hand, and be ready for some silence! But, their effort in recovering a more interactive non-clergy/laity approach to meetings is strikingly worthy of note as their meeting dynamics certainly stand out among other mainline denominations.
Lastly, let’s also not forget that there have probably been uncountable numbers of groups/communities who have incorporated first century worship practices into their communities but due to their size and persecution from the hierarchy were not documented. By nature of radical house church organizational architecture, which is exhibited in a lack of centralized institutional or hierarchical leadership beyond a regional level, these communities wouldn’t have been documented, or would have been portrayed in a good light, or perhaps even feel a need to be officially recognized. My house church experiences certainly fall into this category.
Therefore, even though we can clearly see this style of worship gatherings in the New Testament, and although there have been many reformations, awakenings, and movements, why has first century radical house church community never gained widespread traction among the masses? Why hasn’t this movement become mainstream and caught on? Why hasn’t there been a reformation of the structure and format of the church itself?
RESISTANCE TO STRUCTURAL REFORMATION
There doesn’t seem to be any rush by contemporary traditional church leaders to close their doors, stop collecting money for their salaries and building expenses, loosen their power, influence, respect, and authority, and tell their parishioners to just meet in their houses and to diligently seek the Lord on their own together. I’m not holding my breath on that happening any time soon either.
Despite that, there are many traditional churches that see and embrace the benefit of assembling in smaller groups and encourage their attendees to participate. They agree that there is a component of community life that cannot be realized by only attending a transactional Sunday church service. The common response is to add in a more relational small group experience. The church might call them a cell group, a small group, or a community groups. Or a church might use a cool trendy name like Voyagers or something to label them.
But church leaders still insist that these groups must be under the umbrella of their church. And you are expected to continue to attend Sunday services. The result: the community component is relegated to an add-on experience.
Additionally, the whiff of the hierarchical nature of traditional church returns as these groups cannot function autonomously from the parent church. The parent church tells them that unless these groups are connected to their own top/down oversight that they are in error and destined for disaster.
Traditional leadership agrees that small groups are beneficial, but they continue to insist there still needs to be some type of centralized hierarchical leadership that these groups express and root themselves out of in order for them to be valid. And so the top/down earthly structure remains present in these church sponsored small groups. Remember this too, that heart behind them is right, but the meeting dynamics of these cell groups pretty much mirror the traditional church. In practice, these covenant groups still function like mini-churches except that they meet in homes.
Why is there so much resistance to a structural reformation and reintegration of radical house church practices? Here may be a a few contributing factors:
- The pastor/priest position, and many other paid staff, would become diminished, if not obsolete. If lay persons in small groups can gather together and seek the Lord on their own and hear from the Holy Spirit for insight, direction, and instruction autonomously then the traditional role of the pastor and other leaders would be minimized. Rather than having the pastor do all the preaching, and paying them to spend time preparing sermons for the Sunday services, everyone in the church would have plenty to share when they meet. Instead of the pastor being the only one designated to be visit the shut-ins, and pray for the sick in the church, everyone would be discipled in the Lord and equipped to go out and do those works. In fact, if you were in formal leadership you might lose your paid job. As someone who has been a leader in the traditional church I can tell you that this would be a very hard message to receive! You would be literally preaching yourself out of a job. “What do I do now? How would I pay my bills and take care of my family? What about all the time and money I spent on my seminary degree?”. You would probably lose your unilateral influence over the church, your roles in the church would be de-emphasized, and you’d have to find a regular job like everyone else.
- Belief in needing a spiritual covering – a concept that traditional leadership has passed down that instructs lay people that they need a certain spiritual covering over their lives. Functioning like a God ordained, micro-spiritual manager, they tell us that we are to be held accountable to, report to, and stay under their supervision to keep us from moral and doctrinal error as well as provide spiritual oversight. Some leaders believe that without a covering the radical house church fellowship would have no other outcome than to inevitably spin out of control into utter chaos, go into the ditch, and fall into err because there is no “leader” to be accountable to.
- Failure of past generations of leaders to disciple and equip believers to be autonomous and directly accountable to the Lord Himself. From the top/down we train Christians to believe that they can’t function without the presence of the institutional church. We have been told that be must be reliant upon a priest or pastor to be right with God. We have become locked into a leadership → laity flow that one cannot break out of without being labeled a rebel who opposes what leaders believe is God’s unchallengeable and sovereignly ordained leadership model. Sure, we have been discipled, but discipled to be utterly dependent on the need for traditional leadership. This makes it almost impossible for some to even see anything outside the traditional leadership box as orthodox. This is certainly a very effective way of ensuring job security in leadership.
- Natural gravitation of human beings to gather around an influential person, follow “them”, and place them in a position of leadership rather than giving Jesus that place. I doubt that Martin Luther wanted a church called “Lutherans”, or that John Wesley want “Wesleyan” churches. This is the same fallen human condition that the ancient Israelite’s were guilty of: wanting a human king instead of being led directly by God.
- Intentional or unintentional corruption of leaders brought on by the huge amount of power, stature, and influence that possessing and massing following brings.
- Self-perpetuation—the pattern of traditional church perpetuates itself because of the impression that it leave in the outside world. People have been conditioned to believe, just as the church has modeled, that being Christian means that you go to a Sunday church, listen to a pastor, feel guilt, try to do what he says instead, and then come back next week and repeat. It is difficult for one to think outside of the traditional church box once one that box has become embedded in the culture. Radical house church goes against the grain of a well oiled “we do as we’ve always done” society. It’s hard to get people to think any other way.
- Mistranslations and/or misinterpretations of certain biblical topics/passages referencing leadership and hierarchy. I.e, role of women, definition of pastors and elders, overly authoritative interpretation of “watching over the flock”, accountability to leaders, etc. All of which, I would argue, can be seen from a different light when considered in a context that doesn’t first presume that leadership as described in the New Testament looks the same as it does now in the traditional church.
The list of reasons a person could come up with that explains the strong resistance to reforming church structure could go on and on. And I suppose a person could write entire individual books off each of the points I mentioned above.
When I tell an average person that I participate in house church the responses I get are of a mixed bag. Some say they had heard of house church before and move on. Others are intrigued and ask questions—especially those who are not Christians. But rarely do I get any push back when I bring up house church to average folks. This past summer I told a gal at a city park that I do house church and her response was, “Oh, you poor thing. That’s okay. Those can be good…I guess too.” I got a good laugh out of that one!!
Where I get the most flack from are from those in leadership within the church—no surprise there! This is where all the other reforms throughout history have received their strongest resistance as well.
Change, especially when it affects the foundation of your way of life and career, is not easily embraced.
I will offer up my closing thoughts in Part 4
*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below!
Thank you Vinnie for your hard work in assembling these blog posts. Thank you for your example in Christ’s ministry to the church.
[…] a false of system power that flourishes in hierarchical authority (something I deconstructed in a past blog). It is an earthly, addictive system of leadership that can create rigid, stale, closed, and even […]